The first degree murder charges against former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez have shed light on a disturbing trend: since the Super Bowl in early February, 31 NFL players have been arrested, according to a database compiled by U-T San Diego. Other incidents include attempted murder charges against former Cleveland Browns rookie Ausar Walcott, after he allegedly punched a man outside a New Jersey club, and gun charges against Indianapolis Colts safety Joe Lefeged, who was arrested this past weekend after he fled police during a traffic stop.
According to labor economist Stephen Bronars, the off-season arrest rate for NFL players is up 75% year-over-year. “This might be a blip that won’t last,” says Bronars. “But it’s not good.” The annualized NFL off-season arrest rate is much lower than the national arrest rate for men ages 22 to 34: 3.5% since 2003 compared to 9.9% for all men aged 22 to 34 (since 2000, NFL arrests are 36% more likely to occur in the off-season).
Bronars, however, considers NFL arrests rates “surprisingly high,” given that NFL players have such short windows to earn millions of dollars. The average NFL career is about 3.5 years; the opportunity cost of suspensions, lost endorsement income, or being released because of misconduct is enormous.
Plus, when you compare NFL players to other professionals earning, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of dollars while working for a thriving corporate enterprise, the bad behavior seems even more out of whack. “The arrest rates do seem high relative to highly-paid workers in most companies,” says Bronars. But Bronars also notes that NFL players are, on average, significantly younger than high earners who have spent years rising up the corporate ladder. And in general, younger men are more likely to be arrested than older men.
Back in 2007, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell instituted stricter punishment for player misconduct, in response to an escalating number of arrests. Is this off-season proof that this deterrent hasn’t worked? Jason Lisk of The Big Lead crunched some numbers, and found that even though off-season arrests have pretty much declined from the peak 2006 level that prompted Goodell’s measures, the longer view looks much different. From 2000 to 2006, the NFL averaged 17.7 player arrests during the off-season. From 2008 through 2013 – Lisk excluded 2007 from this calculation, since Goodell instituted the new policies halfway through that off-season — the NFL has averaged 28.5 arrests per off-season. That’s a 61% increase.
Lisk notes that increased media attention on player misbehavior might contribute to the higher arrest numbers from recent years in the U-T San Diego database. In fact, the database itself makes such a disclosure. But no matter how you parse the data, if the NFL truly believes that, as spokesman Greg Aiello told USA Today Sports, “one [arrest] is too many,” the league should probably take some kind of action. But what else can the NFL do? Lisk proposes an intriguing idea: economic incentives for good conduct. “The league could look at team level awards such as cap space or consider the equivalent of compensatory picks for good offseason behavior of an organization’s players, so that there is internal peer pressure to be a good citizen,” Lisk writes. On an individual level, Lisk writes that “the league could institute a bonus pool, and like those signs at work sites that tell us how many days the site has been accident-free, the players could get recognized for being drama free. Payouts to veterans could increase over time–a good citizen bonus for years of service without incident.”
Could this work? Sure, if the rewards were significant. And if any sports league could afford them, it’s the NFL. But such a policy would “have a weird element to it,” says Shane Frederick, a marketing professor at Yale University who has taught courses in behavioral economics and sports management. “You’re supposed to not get arrested,” says Frederick. “You shouldn’t be rewarded for normal behavior.” Bronars thinks Lisk’s proposals “wouldn’t hurt, but I’d be skeptical it would have much of an effect,” he says. Punishments for teams that exceed a threshold level of player arrests, Bronars says, are also worth considering. If an organization were to, say, lose draft picks or salary cap space thanks to these incidents, they may be less likely to acquire risky talent, and be more invested in keeping players out of trouble.
By the NFL’s own admission — “one [arrest] is too many” — the current policies haven’t worked too well. The risks of sitting still are just too high.